Jason is back on the podcast for one last, final episode! Yes, Thoughts on the Table ends today as it hits its 100th episode with the biggest topic we could think of: the meta of food, i.e. anything that has to do with food besides the physical sensations of actually eating it. Join us in our journey through this fascinating subject as we touch on the concept of authenticity and on how culture influences our appreciation of flavor.
Conversely, in the second part of the episode, Jason and I discuss some cooking trends that affect the flavor of food. These include the tendency to finish cooking pasta in its sauce and to alter traditional recipes to make them visually pleasing for sharing on social media, more so than with our guests!
This article is about basil pesto, the second most famous Italian pasta sauce, of course after tomato sauce.
However, this is not about the traditional way to make “Pesto Genovese” – using a mortar; there are plenty of good resources on that (as greatly summarized on Food Lover’s Odyssey). This article is about the more modern way to make pesto – using a blender, a method which is quite common also in Italy.
Technically the word “pesto” comes from the Italian ‘pestare’, to pound. Therefore, the purists would argue that this sauce should be called differently when made in a blender.
Aside from how it should be called, does the pesto made in a blender taste the same as the traditional one? Absolutely not. But it does get close, and it’s much better than any pesto that I could ever buy in a jar.
But before we start throwing basil leaves into the blender, it’s important to know that chopped basil is prone to oxidation – it turns dark and deteriorates in flavor when in contact with the oxygen in the air. Luckily oxidation can be countered by allowing the basil leaves to dry completely before blending them so that the oil can create a seal around the chopped leaves, keeping the oxygen away.
Basil also deteriorates and changes flavor when heated too much. To help counter this, the blender must be activated in pulses in order to limit the overall blending time and the corresponding friction produced by the blades. It also helps to chill the blender bowl and blade in the freezer before use.
Pesto sauce is traditionally used on trenette, trofie (pictured below), but also on linguini, spaghetti (as in this post’s feature image), and even gnocchi.
Making Basil Pesto in a Blender
Yield: 4 servings as pasta sauce
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
100 g fresh basil leaves (if you can find it, prefer the Genovese kind)
50 g Parmigiano (or a mix of Parmigiano & Pecorino cheese)
25 g pine nuts (possibly, from the Mediterranean)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of coarse salt
1 clove of garlic (optional)
Gently wash the basil under cold running water and then lay it on a towel and let it dry completely (fig. 1). Do not bend or crush the leaves.
Meanwhile, put the blender's bowl and blade in the freezer for at least 10 minutes (fig. 2a).
Pour all of the oil in the blender, then add the crushed garlic (if using it) and the basil. Give it a few pulses until the leaves are roughly chopped up (fig. 2b).
Add the cheese, grated or cut in small bits, and the salt (fig. 2c). Give it a few more spins.
Add the whole pine nuts (fig. 2d).
Give a few last spins and extract from the blender (fig. 3).
If the sauce is not used immediately, it can be preserved in the fridge for up to two to three days. Store it in a tall and narrow container (e.g.: a glass) and top it up with an extra tablespoon of olive oil. Before using it, leave the sauce out of the fridge an hour - don't warm it up, or you'll cause the cheese to lump together and separate from the oil. Pesto can also be frozen, in that case some recommend not to add the cheese until the sauce is thawed.
Paccheri are undoubtedly the most majestic kind of short pasta one can find! With a diameter of 1 ½ inch (4 cm), thick walls, and a rough surface, each guarantees an unbeatable bite, or two!
The Paccheri shape originates in the Campania region of Italy, which is also where you find Gragnano – a town near Naples recognized as the capital of dried pasta. As you can imagine, when I stumbled upon a box of Paccheri made in Gragnano, I couldn’t resist!
However, I was still waiting for inspiration for the right sauce that would bring out the fantastic character of this pasta. As a northern Italian, now that it’s colder outside, I naturally drifted towards creamy mushrooms. But that wasn’t enough. So I added Gorgonzola for a pleasant blue kick and Mascarpone for extra creaminess and depth. The resulting recipe is very straightforward, quick to make, and very forgiving in the amounts, even in the timing.
Ingredients for 2 servings
5 oz Paccheri (150 g) (can also use Rigatoni or other short dried pasta of sufficient presence)
3. Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan and roast them at high heat.
4. Continue sautéing the mushrooms until they have softened.
5. Start boiling the pasta for the time written on the box (usually around 14 minutes), which corresponds to an al-dente cooking level.
6. Add a splash of white wine to the mushrooms and let evaporate completely.
7. When the pasta is 5 minutes from ready, go back to the mushrooms, remove the garlic, and season lightly with salt.
8. Add the Mascarpone, Gorgonzola, and cream.
9. Still keeping very low heat, add ½ of the grated Parmigiano and mix everything into a creamy sauce. Note: should the sauce become too thick, add some of the pasta water.
10. When the pasta is ready, drain it quickly and add it to the pan with the sauce. Note: save some of the pasta water by draining the pasta back into the pan where it was boiled.
11. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for a couple of minutes, adding some of the pasta water to ensure the sauce remains silky smooth. This won’t overcook the pasta.
12. Plate gently into preheated bowls, then sprinkle with the rest of the Parmigiano.
Paccheri with Mushrooms, Gorgonzola, and Mascarpone Cream
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 30 minutes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
5 oz Paccheri (150 g) (can also use Rigatoni or other short dried pasta of sufficient presence)
Marzia Bellotti Molatore from Bella Cibo introduces her first cookbook titled Cooking with Mamma Marzia – Authentic Italian Recipes for the Whole Family.
In the episode, Marzia describes how much this cookbook means to her and the importance of creating family traditions in the kitchen. In the second part, Marzia talks about a few of the recipes featured in the book: Casatiello Napoletano (savory stuffed bread), polenta Taragna (buckwheat polenta with cheese), pizzoccheri, pesce all’acqua pazza (“crazy water” poached fish), vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce), and crostoli (fried sweets)!
In this episode, Bologna-based, food instructor and blogger Tina Prestia talks about Ragù alla Bolognese, arguably the most famous and misunderstood Italian sauce.
Join us to hear Tina Prestia break down Ragù alla Bolognese after she analyzed 50+ recipes and directly tested several of them. What ingredients are non-negotiables? What ingredients can be optional? What are most definitely a no-no?
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning American writer of Italian descent. His latest novel titled Cucina Tipica tells the fascinating adventure of a young American who falls in love with Tuscany and with the culture of its people. Naturally, food and wine end up setting the pace and become deeply entrenched in the story.
I was humbled to be contacted by Mr. Cotto who sent me a copy of the book for consideration as he thought it would fit with the theme of the podcast. After reading it, I couldn’t agree more! Please join us in this episode where we discuss the novel in its many aspects–from the significance of food in the Italian culture to the chemistry of taste, from culture shock and relocation to speaking a foreign language and what it does to interactions and introspection.
As an “appetizer” for the book, Andrew sent me a recap in the form of a Food and Wine Plot Menu with 24 tastes each corresponding to a food scene in the novel. Enjoy!
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure A Novel by Andrew Cotto
Food & Wine Plot Menu
Novel Overview: Cucina Tipica is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled travel adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
Characters: Jacoby Pines – a forlorn young American with a “golden palate” and hopes of redemption in Italy Claire – a travel writer and Jacoby’s fiancee Bill – a septuagenarian ex-pat from Texas and Jacoby’s wingman in the “adventure” Paolo – Jacoby and Claire’s neighbor and landlord in the hills south of Florence near the village of Antella Dolores – Claire’s “outrageous” English cousin and “Chiantishire” resident Helen – An Aussie/English ex-pat and Florence museum guide
1st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Excelsior Palace Hotel – Rapallo, Italy Food: Prosciutto, cheese, olives, dried lemons, fresh figs Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom…
2nd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: A “hole-in-the-wall” seafood osteria in Rapallo Food: a basket of lightly fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovy seasoned with salt and lemon; pureed and garlicky fish soup; steamed prawns dipped in aioli; grilled sardines; plates of pasta with pesto and plates of pasta with clams Wine: Carafes of Vermentino Additional Notes: They shared the meal of seafood by the seaside in the Rapallo back alley as completely as possible, holding hands under and above the table, kissing frequently, filling each other’s glasses, and laughing throughout the two hours of slow and utter indulgence.
3rd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Paolo Where: The terrace behind Paolo’s villa featuring a wood-burning oven Food: Handmade pizza with olives, anchovy fillets, and fresh basil; “Misto Arrosto” – a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit, liver in caul fat, guinea hen, halved-potatoes, heads of garlic, caramelized carrot and fennel. Wine: “Local Chianti” – DOCG Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Jacoby felt as peaceful and inspired as he had in months. Maybe ever. The best two meals of his life had been had over the first two days in Italy. The country itself was more beautiful than pictures could capture. The people spoke a lovely language and wore elegant clothes. It was all good. And he wanted in.
4th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Comune di Norcia (Umbria) Food: Porchetta sandwich for Jacoby; salad of wilted wild mushrooms atop bitter local greens for Claire Drinks: Soft
5th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: An elegant agriturismo in Le Marche Food: Charcuterie plate of house-cured meats; silky thick noodles topped with black truffles; lamb roast; Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey Wine: Rosso Piceno Additional Notes: After dinner, they roamed the silent grounds and made love on a pool-side chaise lounge after skinny dipping in the cool water that rippled with shards of silver moonlight.
6th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: The tiny piazza in Panzano-in-Chianti Wine: Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: Claire tucked into Jacoby’s side and put a foot up on the bench against the back of her leg. They silently swirled the wine and took small sips, staring at the valley beyond the village that burned gold with smoldering sunshine of a fading afternoon. Jacoby savored the apple smell of Claire’s radiant hair and the feel of her lithe body pressed into his. He thought that they, in that still pose, would make a great statue, like a modern Apollo and Daphne, frozen in marble so that their love would always last.
7th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Restaurant in Panzano owned by a young butcher (inspired by the auspices of Dario Cecchini) Food: Bistecca Fiorentina, uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in broth) Wine: Vecchie Terre di Montefili – Chianti Classico Additional Notes: The flavor of the beef was as profound and complex as any Jacoby had ever tasted. Steak in the States was bland, in need of sauce, but this simply-prepared choice cut was perfectly grilled – seared on the outside, rare and warm internally – helped by hints of lemon and rosemary and coarse salt while letting the flavor of the meat itself dominate. Amazing. Transcendental. Good f****** lord.
8th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Terrace behind the barn where they lived on Paolo’s property Food: Eggs with prosciutto and sage, bread Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: Jacoby loved cooking for people, then sharing the meal and the mutual pleasure of being together. Eating the same food; drinking the same wine; everyone on the same stage. It was like sex when sex was good and mutual. What people called “making love.”
10th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini, Antella Food: Sausage and eggs with stewed tomatoes Drink: Espresso Additional Notes: “I’ve been an ex-pat for 35 years, and the only thing I miss about America is breakfast,” – Bill
11th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Spring Minestrone (generous with pieces of artichoke, asparagus and carrots in a broth of pureed onions and leeks with a snap of garlic); fresh fettuccine with fava beans and Pecorino; rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta over polenta dotted with green olives Drinks: Negroni, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Bill and Jacoby ate and drank and spoke of their looming adventure into Florence proper, in search of a matriarch holed up in a palace marked by a cat statue. They laughed at their dim prospects, which were soothed by the magnificent meal and flowing wine.
12th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Florence, food stand near the Sant’Ambrogio market Food: Lampredotto sandwiches Wine: Chianti in plastic cups Additional Notes: The aroma out of the stand was pungent; the sandwich warm in his hand, of tomato infused broth and hearty filling tucked between the bread. The taste was super savory to the bite, ample aromatics and a soft texture from the holy trinity of bread and filling and broth.
13th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, a gazebo in Piazza Signoria Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: “Why, yes. Yes, I would,” Helen said. “There’s few things I prefer more than a glass of Prosecco.”
14th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, Il Teatro del Sale Food: Gurguglione; artichoke sformato; polpettini; fried rabbit; zucchini stuffed with ground pork; roasted chicken & sausage with potatoes, flourless chocolate cake Wine: House red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: There was nowhere else in the world Jacoby wished to be. This was his Grand Canyon. His Hawaii. Mount Everest or Disney World. His paradise was a theater-cafeteria-commissary, sharing a table with two people he hardly knew but liked immensely, full of possibilities, in a room full of shamelessly happy people.
15th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, club Sriracha Drinks: Negronis (many)
16th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: The barn Food: Steak & eggs Additional Notes: Tears fell down Jacoby’s face as he continued to chew enough to swallow safely. The salt from the tears entering his mouth brightened the flavor, making it more clear what was happening even before Claire descended the stairs in the same clothes she wore before, a suitcase thumping beside her.
17th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Al fresco table at the cafe in Antella Food: Ceci and bread Wine: Chianti Colli Fiorentini Additional Notes: “Ciao,” Jacoby called before tucking into his plate of oven-baked chickpeas that tasted as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten, washing the legumes and bread down with the local red wine as he sat in the cool shadows of his own private dining terrace on a Friday night in a silent village as twilight settled upon him in what felt like the most important place in all of the world.
18th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Osteria in Pienza Food: Pici with porcini; pappardelle with wild rabbit ragu Wine: Argiano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: In a shaded osteria at the end of town, Jacoby couldn’t decide between two pastas… so he ordered both, taking the mushroom plate first, followed by the gamy second course, both washed down with separate, massive goblets of Vino Nobile, which he swirled and sipped with great delight.
19th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Enoteca la Fortezza, Montalcino Food: A plate of Pecorino in three varieties Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino (2007) Additional Notes: When it was over, Jacoby felt a thread of sadness which he hoped to dash through the purchase of a case of the very wine he just drank.
20th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: A cantinetta near Antella Food: mixed antipasti; tagliatelle with porcini; roasted pork ribs; cantuccini… Wine: Colli Fiorentini Riserva, …Vin Santo Additional Notes: “That was incredible” Jacoby said. Bill made a face of modest expression and flicked a wrist in the air. “Cucina tipica,” he said.
21st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Helen Where: Lo Sprone Vinaino, Santo Spirito, Florence Food: Cacio e Pepe; charred octopus & potatoes; roasted pigeon Wine: Martinis (in the piazza out front), white wine (unnamed)
22nd Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: The meat was as tender as it was flavorful, filling his mouth with silky decadence buttressed by layers of flavor only attainable through days of preparation that precedes slow, slow cooking.
23rd Taste: Who: Claire & Dolores Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: “My f****** God!” Dolores’ voice shot from the kitchen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” Jacoby and Claire cracked up and parted their hug. “Bring it in here,” Jacoby called. “No f****** way!” Dolores called back.
24th Taste (in absentia): Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores, Bill Where: The cantinetta near Antella Food: To be determined Wine: To be determined (lots guaranteed) Additional Notes: “How’s the food?” Dolores asked Jacoby. “Decent?” “Oh, it’s way better than decent,” Jacoby said. “More like typical.”
Crespelle are the relatively unknown Italian equivalent of the world-famous French crepes. Although very similar to crepes, crespelle are often baked in the oven with other ingredients.
Both in crepes and in crespelle, the batter is mainly made of milk, flour, and egg. The proportions, however, can vary considerably from recipe to recipe. The version I’m presenting is light in the egg and flour, making for a batter that is quite runny and which turns into a thin disc. The resulting crespelle are more brittle than those made with higher proportions of egg and flour, but they are strong enough to be handled and are more similar in flavor and texture to fresh pasta. This makes them a great vessel to hold the filling without overpowering the dish.
The result is a decadent first course that is perfect for a festive meal as an alternative to other baked dishes like lasagna or cannelloni.
Mushrooms and Cheese Crespelle, the Italian Crepes
Yield: 2-3 servings
Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 20 minutes
For the crespelle
75 g flour (5 tablespoons)
250 ml milk (1 cup)
1/8 tsp salt
Butter to grease the pan
For the filling
400 g mushrooms (e.g. chestnut), sliced
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
200 g fontina, raclette, or gouda
For the bechamel
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp water
2 Tbsp flour
pinch of salt
300 ml milk
To assemble the dish
Butter to grease the baking pan
2 Tbsp grated Parmigiano
Make the batter by working the egg into the flour, then add the salt.
Gradually, whisk in the milk - small amounts at first, then more until all of it is incorporated. The batter will appear quite thin.
Preheat a 6-8 inch (15-20 cm) non-stick pan at medium heat, and brush it evenly with melted butter.
Pour 1 tablespoon of batter into the pan, then quickly swirl it around by tipping the pan until it spreads to cover the entire pan. (Adjust the batter amount if necessary.)
Let the crespella dry and cook undisturbed until you see it browning slightly on the edges.
Using a spatula, lift the crespella at the edge slightly, then continue lifting it using two fingers and fully slide the spatula underneath it.
Move the crespella onto a plate. As you make more of them, stack them on - they won't stick to one another. You should be able to make 8 to 12 crespelle (depending on the size of the pan).
Set the crespelle aside. Roast the sliced mushrooms in a large non-stick pan in a mix of oil and butter at high heat. Make sure not to crowd the mushrooms (you may need to roast them in two batches). When the mushrooms start to soften, add a pinch of salt and pepper. If the mushrooms release water, continue cooking at a high temperature until it reduces substantially.
Make the bechamel sauce in a small pot. Start by bringing water and butter to a boil. Then add the flour and mix vigorously.
When the mix makes a sizzling sound, reduce the heat and gradually pour in the milk until fully absorbed. Then, allow the mix to boil for one full minute for the flour to cook - mix constantly preventing it from boiling over. In the end, the bechamel will appear quite thick and creamy. Set it aside and let it cool down a bit.
As you preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F), fill each crespella with a heaping tablespoon of mushrooms, part of the cheese (the size of a finger), and a tablespoon of bechamel. Roll the crespella gently.
Continue rolling the crespelle placing them side by side in a buttered baking pan. (I used an 8-inch square pan.)
Once the baking pan is filled, drizzle it with the remaining bechamel and cover it with grated Parmigiano.
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden.
Note: Instead of using bechamel, the crespelle can be baked with butter and sage. After rolling, cover with sage leaves and butter drops, then bake in the oven until golden.
This episode’s guest is Giuseppe D’Angelo, the author of Pizza Dixit, the blog on Neapolitan pizza in the world. Born and raised in Naples, Giuseppe made a mission for himself to discover the best Neapolitan pizzerias around the world. In doing so, he investigates how pizza makers outside of Naples can obtain an excellent product by operating on the variables they still can control, such as the dough, the oven, and the choice of ingredients, starting of course from tomato sauce and mozzarella.
During the episode, Giuseppe tries to define what Neapolitan pizza *is*, a controversial topic even within Naples itself, by stating what Neapolitan pizza definitely is not! He also describes how modern pizza ovens can approximate the results of traditional wood-burning ovens while helping pizza makers comply with city regulations.
Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.
This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!
To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!
When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.
Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.
To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”
2. Plural vs. singular
Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.
When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)
3. Feminine vs. masculine
In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!
4. Adjective vs. noun
Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!
Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.
And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?
5. Generic vs. specific
‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!
As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.
Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)
Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.
The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)
In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:
‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)
6. Food vs. preparation
To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”
Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.
To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.
To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.
(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)
(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)
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